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Israel-UAE deal brings 25 years of covert diplomacy out of the shadows

As one diplomat puts it, ‘These foundations were built bottom up, patiently and quietly, over many years, to prepare people’s hearts in advance, unlike what happened in Jordan and Egypt’

ABU DHABI – The normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates came as a complete surprise to many Israelis and is often described as the relevant leaders’ personal achievement.

But as in any diplomatic process, though leaders make the decisions and reap the rewards, many people and processes over years have paved the way to the gala ceremony that will take place at the White House. In the UAE’s case, 25 years of quiet diplomatic efforts helped prepare the ground for the current agreement.

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And unlike in the cases of Jordan and Egypt, where largely defense officials manage the relationship while civilian ties are neglected, Israel’s Foreign Ministry slowly and quietly built productive civilian ties with the UAE alongside the security relationship.

Now that bilateral relations have become open, people involved in this effort can speak more freely about the process. One of them is Eliav Benjamin, head of the ministry’s coordination bureau, who is responsible for ties with Arab and Muslim states that don’t have official relations with Israel.

Open gallery view From the right, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Jared Kushner and Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat in Tel Aviv this week. Credit: NIR ELIAS/Reuters

“It all began after Oslo, when Shimon Peres came and told us, ‘Start opening the door to the Arab world,” Benjamin said, referring to the 1993 agreement with the Palestinians and the then-foreign minister. “That’s when the contacts started. We opened a dialogue with them in Washington, New York and Abu Dhabi, with senior officials’ blessing. Slowly and quietly. A dedicated team was built and we were on the phone with them.

“At first, most of the activity was economic, with the goal of it spreading to the diplomatic sphere as well. In 2002, there was a breakthrough when they wanted to establish a diamond exchange in Dubai and saw the Ramat Gan exchange as a model. We held many talks with them about this, and dozens of Israeli traders started working there.

“Today, more than 40 are registered. Every year there’s a big jewelry fair, and you can see quite a few religious Israelis there. That was one of the first anchors. We also invested in helping with agricultural development and water.

“Even after the Mabhouh affair, the end of the crisis became an opportunity,” Benjamin said, referring to Israel’s 2010 assassination of a senior Hamas operative in Dubai. “In 2017, we opened our delegation to the UN’s renewable energy agency in Abu Dhabi. The agreement was that we’d be there under the agency’s auspices, but it included a sign and a flag in front. Everything. This was an important breakthrough.”

Renewable energy and diplomacy

Dan Shaham Ben-Hayun currently heads Israel’s delegation to the renewable energy agency and serves as its special envoy for applied research. Until now, he rarely spoke to the press, given the sensitivities in building the relationship. His delegation was Israel’s first official foothold in the Persian Gulf.

“Israel supported setting up the agency in the UAE, and when it opened, we received the option of opening an affiliated delegation there,” he said. “It’s a delegation to an international organization based in Abu Dhabi, and I think we acted wisely when we scrupulously adhered over the years to the mandate we were given. We dealt mainly with being able to display Israeli technologies for renewable energy and green construction in the country.

“But our second role, as diplomats, was understanding the country – its culture and priorities, what they talked about and how they talked. In any relationship, it’s important to understand the other side, what’s important to him …. It’s not just what I want, but also what the other side wants.”

The ability to be there openly as Israeli diplomats “contributed to a direct, unmediated familiarity with the social and economic system and decision-making in the country, as observers and people being observed,” Shaham Ben-Hayun said. “When you’re a guest, you respect and accept the conditions set for being a guest and a diplomat.

“Both sides’ ability to understand and respect each other…

Noa Landau

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